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I love frequent flyer miles because they let me travel the world — and do it far more comfortably than
I would if I were spending cash. That’s because premium cabin awards are generally only a modest multiple over economy awards, though often the cash price of a ticket is many times what coach costs. (To be sure I highlight great business class sale fares when they come along as well.)
The price of an award ticket, though, can vary tremendously. That’s because the same flight will be ‘sold’ for different mileage prices depending on the frequent flyer program you’re using to book it.
If you have United miles you ring up United or use the United website when you want to book travel on Lufthansa, Asiana, Austrian, or EVA Air — and you pay the number of miles that United shows on its own award chart when the award seats are available.
However other Star Alliance airlines have their own pricing for the same flights. Aeroplan, ANA, or Aegean may charge fewer points for the very same seats. As a result there are what some would consider ‘tricks’ to get your awards at the lowest possible cost.
Here are 17 of my favorite awards to book because of how much you’re getting for your miles:
- Roundtrip first class between the US and Japan on ANA for 110,000 – 120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles (Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards).
From the West Coast it’s just 110,000 miles for first class (90,000 in business class). I recently booked a Houston – Tokyo Narita first class roundtrip for 120,000 miles and $169.26 in taxes (no fuel surcharges).
You can put the award on hold for 24 hours. Points transfer from partners instantly. Roundtrip travel is required, Virgin Atlantic awards have a $50 per passenger change fee, and a cancel/redeposit fee of $50 as well. No changes are permitted within 24 hours of travel.
- JAL Mileage Bank first class awards on Emirates New York – Bangkok via Dubai for just 155,000 miles roundtrip (JAL is a Starwood transfer partner).
Japan Airlines has a distance-based award chart. As long as you stay under 20,000 miles you can fly first class on Emirates for 155,000 miles, and New York to Bangkok is 19,798 miles roundtrip.
Though they’ve added fuel surcharges to Emirates awards at times in the past, the most recent bookings I’ve done haven’t had fuel surcharges.
In contrast, Emirates Skywards (an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner) charges their own members 285,000 miles plus fuel surcharges for the same award. Alaska Airlines charges 360,000 miles roundtrip.
- Mideast – Southeast Asia for 50,000 AAdvantage miles each way in first class (American AAdvantage is a Starwood transfer partner)
Fly Doha – Bangkok in Qatar first class on the Airbus A380 (including use of the business class bar) for 50,000 miles.
Qatar Airways Airbus A380 Business Class Bar
Or fly Etihad Abu Dhabi – Singapore in first class for 50,000 miles, which is great value considering this is true international first class and an over 7 hour flight (not to mention access to Etihad’s excellent new first class lounge).
Etihad First Class Lounge, Abu Dhabi
Once the diplomatic row between Qatar and neighboring Gulf states subside you can fly Doha – Abu Dhabi in Qatar’s regional first class, unlocking access to their al Safwa first class lounge and connect Abu Dhabi – Singapore in Etihad’s Boeing 787 first class at the same time.
Qatar Airways al Safwa Lounge, Doha
- Australia – Hong Kong for 40,000 United miles one-way in first class (United is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer parter)
In November 2013 the cost of first class awards using United miles skyrocketed, but there are a handful of routes where is surprisingly cheap. South Pacific – South Asia is just 40,000 miles one way in first class on Star Alliance partners. You can fly Thai Airways, for instance, Sydney – Bangkok… and even Sydney – Bangkok – Hong Kong (grabbing the incredible first class ground experience in Bangkok in the process, the Thai Airways spa is really unmatched in an airport).
Thai Airways Spa, Bangkok
The cost to move to North Asia instead of South Asia is just an incremental 10,000 miles or 50,000 miles total each way.
The signup bonus you can earn from a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is enough for one-way first class Sydney – Tokyo or China via Bangkok on Thai Airways.
- Pretty good transatlantic award availability using Air France KLM Flying Blue miles (transfer partner with American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards).
Air France KLM Flying Blue charges 62,500 miles each way for business class between the US and Europe and Europe even includes Tel Aviv. Awards are even cheaper with promo awards which rotate each month. When flying Air France you’re going to pay fuel surcharges, expect one way US to Paris to cost about $230 out of pocket for taxes and fees.
The key here is that there’s much more award availability on Air France using miles in their own program than if you’re trying to use Delta (or Alaska) miles. And Air France’s new business class is quite good.
Here’s Houston – Paris on Air France in business class non-stop if you’re looking using Delta miles:
Now, I didn’t pick a route to really cherry pick, just to give you an idea of what additional availability often looks like. So it’s not wide open, but if you look using Air France KLM Flying Blue miles availability is much… better.
Here’s the thing — open an Air France KLM Flying Blue account now even if you don’t need to book an awards. No accounts, with miles transferred in and immediately redeemed (especially online) can trigger fraud warnings in their system and sometimes they’ll reject your booking. So open an account before you need it, and book by phone if transferring in points from a credit card program. Here’s 17 key things to know about Air France KLM Flying Blue.
- Korean Air Skypass 80,000 miles roundtrip for business class between the US and Europe. You’ll pay fuel surcharges, but you’ll save a lot of miles. (Transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards)
Earn the signup bonus from a Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card and you have enough miles for roundtrip business class to Europe, not just one way. Here’s 17 things you should know about Korean Air Skypass.
- Korean Air first class to Asia as far South as Hong Kong for 80,000 miles one way and 160k roundtrip using China Eastern and China Southern. (Transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards)
Again, earn the signup bonus from a Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card and you have enough miles for first class to Asia.
What makes this so good is that Korean Air (1) flies to more US destinations than any other Asian airline, and (2) has better first class award availability between the US and Asia than anyone else.
As a side note you can book Saudia first class with Korean miles as well.
- Aeroplan business class to Europe for 55,000 miles each way (Aeroplan is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner). Eastern Europe generally, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece bump up to 57,500 miles.
Aeroplan doesn’t collect fuel surcharges on all of their partners so fly United, Turkish or Swiss (recently returned to bookable) and get cheap awards in miles and in cash.
- American AAdvantage US to Maldives (or India) in first class for 115,000 miles one way (American AAdvantage is a Starwood transfer partner)
This isn’t a cheap award but I consider it an incredible value. Sure before March 22, 2016 it used to run 90,000 miles. But I’ve got plenty of AAdvantage miles and this is the award I want to book more than any other — especially now that Etihad is running equipment with real first class from Abu Dhabi to the Maldives.
I just booked three sets of roundtrip Etihad first class awards to and from New York JFK for the Airbus A380 First Apartment. Here’s how I did it.
- First class between the US and Hawaii for 45,000 Korean Air miles roundtrip (Korean Air Skypass is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner).
Korean partners with Alaska Airlines, Delta and Hawaiian Airlines and you can use your choice for Hawaii awards although the rules and prices are slightly different with each. Delta awards are 45,000 miles roundtrip in first class between the US mainland and Hawaii. On Alaska or Hawaiian it’s 60,000 miles roundtrip in first.
You have to book roundtrip, and you cannot combine these airlines on a single award. There’s no change to routing after departure of first flight. Once travel begins you can change only dates/times.
It’s not just first class awards that are cheaper, for instance here’s pricing flying Delta New York to Hawaii and back in economy (Alaska and Hawaiian economy awards are 30,000 miles roundtrip):
- Singapore Airlines business class between the US and Singapore or A380 Suites between Europe and Singapore because of expanded availability (Singapore Airlines Krisflyer is a Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards transfer partner.)
Singapore Airlines doesn’t generally make long haul premium cabin award space available to partner airlines, but they do make space available to their own members. Business space is easier to get than first class, but space does open up even for Suites class and especially Europe – Singapore rather than US – Singapore.
Singapore also has a very unique upgrades feature which is fantastic for going from premium economy to business. Whenever a business class award seat is available you can upgrade at the saver upgrade price. However Singapore has two upgrade prices, if an extra miles business class award is available you can spend extra miles to upgrade into the business class seat as well. As a result upgrades from premium economy to business class are available most of the time.
- Brussels Airlines business class between New York or Washington Dulles and Brussels for 44,000 Etihad Guest miles each way (Etihad is an American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards transfer partner)
Even though Etihad devalued Brussels Airlines awards without notice in April they’re still a fantastic value considering that you can fly transatlantic business class for 88,000 miles roundtrip without fuel surcharges — and a lap infant costs just 10% of the miles.
Etihad partner awards can be frustrating to book at times because of call center agent quality, hang up and call back to find an agent that knows what they’re doing and try the Manchester, UK call center at 44 0345 6081225.
- Using Etihad miles to fly American Airlines at American’s old ‘pre-devaluation’ award prices. Of course you need American Airlines to have saver award space for this, but it’s a fantastic value. (Etihad is an American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards transfer partner.)
The Etihad Guest redemption chart for travel on American Airlines is fantastic.
Here’s one-way pricing between North America and other regions:
First class between the US and Europe is still 62,500 miles each way. You save 45,000 miles on a roundtrip compared to booking with American AAdvantage. First class between the US and ‘Asia 2’ is still 67,500 miles each way. If you find a first class seats to Hong Kong and back that’ll save you 85,000 miles on a roundtrip.
- Most of the Asiana award chart. (Asiana is a Starwood Preferred Guest transfer partner.)
They partner with Etihad in addition to being a Star Alliance airline. The mileage costs are more than reasonable, and one way awards are available even though the award chart shows roundtrip pricing. The stopover rules fantastic. They do add fuel surcharges to awards. I long for the days when the Bank of America co-brand credit card earned 2 miles per dollar, though.
- Short business class flights within Asia, Australia using less than 20,000 British Airways Avios. (Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to British Airways, American Express Membership Rewards transfer 1:0.8)
British Airways charges for each flight you take separately, based on distance. As long as you stay under 2000 flown miles business class is double (rather than triple) the cost of economy.
That’s great for flights with a real (rather than intra-Europe) business class. I love this especially in Asia using their partners Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and SriLankan. It’s also great for Qantas intra-Australia and on trans-Tasman routes.
Here’s the chart:
Business class generally means a better seat, baggage allowance, priority check-in, and lounge access all for a very reasonable mileage increment.
- Aegean Miles and Bonus. The whole program. (Aegean is a Starwood Preferred Guest transfer partner.)
Consider that they offer awards:
- 42,000 miles roundtrip for United domestic first class (within the lower 48)
- 90,000 miles roundtrip for US-Europe business class, and North Africa is included at the same price as Europe and this includes Israel, too. First class is 120,000 miles roundtrip.
- 110,000 miles roundtrip for US-Middle East business class, 150,000 miles roundtrip for first class
- 150,000 miles roundtrip in business class between US and all of Asia and the South Pacific
- 90,000 miles roundtrip in business class between the US and South America
- 110,000 miles roundtrip for US-Africa business class, 150,000 miles roundtrip for first class
One-way awards are available at half these prices. You can book one-way Lufthansa first class for just 60,000 miles (plus fuel surcharges). You can book US-South America for 45,000 miles one-way (and no fuel surcharges).
The biggest drawback besides fuel surcharges is that you can only have one connection in each direction of your award.
- 42,000 miles roundtrip for United domestic first class (within the lower 48)
- Cathay Pacific US – Asia in first class for 70,000 Alaska miles each way… or add on Africa for no additional points. (Alaska Airlines is a Starwood Preferred Guest transfer partner. Virgin America is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner at 2:1 through October 31, and Virgin points transfer to Alaska at 1 to 1.3)
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan allows you to book stopovers on one way award tickets, and charges just 70,000 miles each way for first class on Cathay Pacific between the US and Asia. Fly to Hong Kong, stop over, and continue to another Cathay Pacific destination in Asia.
Cathay Pacific First Class
The funny thing is that Alaska charges the same price for awards to Africa on Cathay Pacific as they do Asia. So you can connect (or stopover) in Hong Kong and continue to Africa without spending any more miles.
Sadly Cathay no longer serves Johannesburg using an aircraft with a first class cabin, but Hong Kong – Johannesburg (a 13 hour flight) as a ‘free’ add-on in business class still isn’t bad.
These are my personal favorite awards, what are yours?
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